What is a bone marrow transplant?

Doctors use special tools to extract bone marrow for bone marrow transplantation.

Doctors use special tools to extract bone marrow for bone marrow transplantation.

Bone marrow consists of the cells that populate the internal space of your bones. The marrow manufactures three types of blood cells – red blood cells that transport oxygen, platelets that help your blood clot, and white blood cells that fight off infection.

Diseases of the marrow and blood can be debilitating or fatal, but for certain diseases, a treatment method is to implant some healthy bone marrow from a genetically compatible donor into a patient in the hope it will grow and replace the diseased marrow.

Often, the patient’s own cancerous marrow is destroyed prior to restoring the patient’s marrow with the new healthy donor cells.

Bone marrow transplantation discovery and development

The fear of nuclear warfare after the World War II initiated study of radiation effects on the human body. Initial studies on animals showed radiation had some of the most damaging effects on the bone marrow, and researchers then tested bone marrow transplants on these irradiated animals.

From the 1950s through 1960s, doctors performed several bone marrow transplants between genetically similar donors and leukemia patients (called “allogenic” transplants), without seeing significant long-term success except in the case of transplantation from identical twins.

The first notable achievement in bone marrow transplantation was in 1968 when a child with X-linked lymphopenic immune deficiency and another with Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome received successful transplants. Success continued with aplastic anemia and leukemia patients.

Improvements in compatibility testing and establishment of bone marrow donor registries made allogeneic transplants more successful. This created a wider range of patients eligible for bone marrow transplants.

Medically Reviewed on 2/20/2020


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